Concord airport housing plan fights to take flight

San Francisco Chronicle, CA
Monday, March 8, 2004

One of the most desirable pieces of land in Contra Costa County doesn’t have much curb appeal — it’s 600 acres of dowdy asphalt in Concord with some hangars and two runways built by the military during World War II and handed over to the county in 1947 as surplus property.

But Buchanan Field Airport, which sits at the junction of two busy freeways, has the ideal location in a growing county that is a commercial hub and home to 1 million residents. That has sparked a fierce battle over whether it should remain an airport or be transformed into a community of homes, businesses, a library and community center.

“Right now, it’s a waste of public land,” said County Supervisor Mark DeSaulnier of Concord, who wants developers to propose ideas for housing and retail space for the property that could be similar to San Jose’s popular Santana Row. “This could change the character of central county. There’s a potential to really change the dynamics in a really positive way.”

Some development opponents allege that DeSaulnier is trying to close Buchanan because of his friendship with Tom Koch, vice president of Shapell Industries, which is building thousands of homes in the Dougherty Valley near San Ramon.

“Tom Koch has a reputation of ramrodding things through,” said Dianne Cole, a director of the who adamantly opposes closing Buchanan Field. “Having an airport in the center of the county is really a terrific asset, and there isn’t a hue and cry by anybody to shut the airport down.”

Koch, who said the idea was DeSaulnier’s and not his, called the allegations “mean-spirited.” He doesn’t deny the merits of developing the property.

“It’s extraordinary. It’s without parallel in the county,” Koch said. “BART’s a short distance. There’s no impacts on any species, no wetlands. We’re talking about building on an asphalt strip.”

Extensive opposition

But pilots, business leaders, the Concord City Council and U.S. Reps. George Miller, D-Martinez, and Ellen Tauscher, D-Walnut Creek, fiercely oppose building on the airport, which is among the busiest noncommercial airports in the country.

Even the East Bay’s largest homebuilder, Albert Seeno Jr., thinks it shouldn’t be covered with houses.

“It’s more valuable in driving the economic engine in jobs,” said Seeno spokesman Bob Rossi, who added that Seeno and others market their office buildings in Concord as having an airport nearby for business travel. “They like the feeling that their corporate executives can come in here. One mile of runway takes you anywhere in the world. Once you lose that, you lose it forever.”

Critics scoff at the notion that an airport is a poor use of land, saying a consultant estimated in 2000 that Buchanan brought $63 million a year in direct and indirect benefits to the community and that it had business, recreational and emergency response value.

“We don’t ask for a higher and better use for a freeway or a park or a bridge,” Cole said. “You don’t expect to make money on infrastructure. Here, actually, the infrastructure is providing some revenue.”

FAA unreceptive

DeSaulnier also faces an uphill battle with the Federal Aviation Administration, which has pointed out that the government’s 1947 deed called for the county to run the airport in perpetuity and that the FAA recently provided $14 million in federal funds to improve it.

“The prospects for FAA concurrence in closing Buchanan Field are highly unlikely in light of the circumstances,” FAA Regional Manager Andrew Richards wrote DeSaulnier in January. “We note that FAA has only rarely considered application … to allow for the closure of the airport, and then only in unusual circumstances, often including the construction of replacement airport. ”

DeSaulnier, who has backed off his original proposal to upgrade the county’s second airport in distant Byron — a small town near Contra Costa’s border with San Joaquin County — is suggesting just that. He says a new airport could be built on the site of an old landfill in Martinez or in southern Solano County, and that it would be just as convenient and useful for businesses and pilots. His fellow supervisors agreed to issue requests for development proposals, which will probably be posted in April.

Any developer chosen to build at Buchanan would have to build the new airport, and although that would cost probably tens of millions of dollars, it could be worth it, Koch said.

“There is precious little land left in Contra Costa County, and prices are hyperinflated now,” Koch said. “I know we’ll be part of any process that goes forward.”

Over the decades, residents in Concord and neighboring cities have grumbled about noise from planes, most recently when helicopters from a training school, which has since moved to Florida, buzzed constantly over homes. There have been occasional plane accidents, most tragically in December 1985 when a pilot trying to land a twin-engine Beechcraft in heavy fog crashed into nearby Sun Valley Mall, killing seven people and severely injuring dozens of Christmas shoppers.

Relieves other airports

But the airport is seen as vital to the nation’s aviation system as a reliever airport to the Bay Area’s international airports. Buchanan Field had more than 129,000 landings or takeoffs last year, and more than 500 aircraft are based there — including 15 corporate jets, two sheriff’s helicopters and two life-flight ambulances.

Even People Over Planes, a citizens’ group that has complained about plane noise and fought to keep commercial air service out of Buchanan Field, doesn’t want the airport closed.

Hal Yeager, the group’s president, said that corporate jets have gotten quieter and that closing the airport could put pressure on mobile home parks nearby to constructively evict tenants because the land would become more valuable and owners would want to sell it for other uses once an upscale development is built.

“You’re going to open a freeway frontage road,” Yeager said. “It’s ideal for car dealerships.”

The Concord City Council voted last week against participating in county studies because of their strong opposition to closing Buchanan Field. City Manager Ed James denounced the county in a letter last month for “disenfranchising” Concord by going forward with a study that local officials oppose.

“Closing any airport is a problem because they’re just not making airports anymore,” said Councilman Bill McManigal. “If you’re worried about housing, we still have within the city limits the Concord Naval Weapons Station, which will hold all the housing this city will need.”

Housing alternative sought

Concord officials have been trying to acquire part of the 6,000-acre station, which has been mothballed but not officially closed, while the federal government has been unwilling to give it up.

Finding a suitable location to move the airport is problematic, opponents say. Cole said that a new airport in Martinez wouldn’t be as big as Buchanan Field because the site is only about 300 acres, and the weather there is foggier and windier because it’s closer to the Carquinez Strait.

“Flight patterns would take you right over a refinery,” Cole said, noting Shell is near the old landfill. “If a small plane hit one of those pipes, it could truly be a catastrophe.”

A Martinez airport would also be further from Mount Diablo Medical Center, so organs that are flown for transplant would take longer to arrive.

DeSaulnier said he doesn’t see why people oppose studying the idea. “Some people were apoplectic, but that’s the nature of life,” DeSaulnier said. “In a dynamic area like ours, you cannot maintain the quality of life without trade-offs. For people to just refuse to even look at something, that doesn’t contribute to maintaining or improving the quality of life.”